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«Chapter One It was Quinnasweela changeday, and the whole world was on fire. Leah strolled through the Plaza of Women just as night came on and ...»

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By Sharon Shinn

Chapter One

It was Quinnasweela changeday, and the whole world was on fire. Leah strolled

through the Plaza of Women just as night came on and watched in silent

appreciation as candles and oil lamps were set in every window of every building in

Chialto. The city had been largely converted to gaslight over the past five years, but

on this autumn holiday, those pale imitations of fire had been turned

off in favor of the real thing.

Leah hadn’t realized she’d be back in Chialto in time for the holiday. Well, really, she hadn’t given much thought to changedays in the past five years, since she’d been living in the country of Malinqua where the turn of the seasons had never been cause for celebration. If you’d asked her a quintile ago—say, on Quinnatorz changeday—she’d have said she was never returning to the country of Welce. Yet here she was, wandering through the plaza, mingling with the crowds, buying a cup of spiced apple wine from a streetside vendor, and feeling a rare moment of contentment.

She had to admit she loved being back at the Plaza of Women. Situated on the edge of the formal shop district, it was a big, paved space that would have been flat and open except that it was crowded with booths and stalls. Even on ordinary days, those booths held an endless variety of merchandise, from fresh flowers to used clothing to alcohol of dubious origin. Tonight, there were ten times as many stalls, each crammed to bursting with cheap trinkets, bundles of cloth, samples of flavorful food, and candles in every shape, scent, and color.

And other oddments.

Leah had decided to head back to her apartment for the night when she came across a large, rickety booth tucked off the main path. It was shaded by a wide sheet of blue fabric that hung perilously close to the torches that illuminated the unexpected merchandise for sale: dozens of exotic fish, each swimming in its own clear glass bowl.

She’d never seen anything like them before—triangle-shaped creatures with narrow, pointed faces and frills of diaphanous fins completely encircling the widest portion of their bodies. They came in vivid colors, glittering green, rippling gold, dusky blue, rich purple, but all of them had eyes so dark they appeared to be an unblinking black. They were like living jewels suspended in crystal water.

The booth was crowded with other customers moving with amazement from one glass bowl to another. Three slim, dark young men—looking enough like each other to be brothers—ran between tables, answering questions and begging the onlookers not to dangle their fingers in the water.

“They’ll bite,” one of the brothers warned a young girl who was doing just that. “Hard enough to draw blood.” The girl hastily withdrew her hand. The woman with her, most likely her mother, asked, “What do you feed them?” “Anything, really, but they prefer meat. They’ll eat each other if you put two together.” Leah moved from bowl to bowl, bending down to marvel at each occupant.

“I’ve never seen anything like them,” she said when one of the brothers was close enough to hear. “Where do they come from?” “Cozique, these days,” he answered. “That’s where the breeders live, anyway.

But the first pairs were caught in Yorramol and shipped back to the southern seas.” Yorramol! a few of the other customers murmured. Yorramol was practically a mythic place, so distant that almost no one in this part of the world had ever sailed there. Leah figured the chances were about even that these fish had actually originated in that faraway spot. More likely they could be found in the seas off Berringey or Dhonsho, where they were so thick in the water that you could scoop them out by hand. Unless you were afraid of being bitten.

“I don’t understand. Are they good for eating? They’re so small,” complained a man who was looking around the booth with some bewilderment.

“Of course you don’t eat them!” exclaimed one of the other onlookers, a middle-aged woman in fashionable clothing. “They’re for looking at! They’re just for having a pretty thing in your life. Like a painting, but alive. Like a flower.” The man’s expression suggested he didn’t bother much with art or botany, either. Practical and unimaginative; hunti, at a guess, or torz. “I just don’t get the point,” he said in a grumpy voice.

“Then the reifarjin is not for you,” the vendor said.

The man made a disgruntled noise and stalked off, no doubt to seek out something more sensible, like a hand saw or a milking bucket. A small girl danced around the fashionable woman, tugging at her wrist.

“I want one,” the girl begged. “Please, can I have one? Can I?” “I don’t think your mother would like it,” the woman answered.

“We can leave it at your house and I’ll just come visit.” “Oh, so I’m the one who has to feed it and give it fresh water every day?” “Maybe it wouldn’t be very hungry,” the girl said hopefully.

Leah smiled, listening to them, and stepped to the last table. There were only three bowls here; soon she would have seen everything on offer in the booth and she could go home. It was ridiculous that she had spent so much time here anyway.

She didn’t want a fish, whether or not it bore a lovely name like reifarjin. Like the petulant man, she was not in the market for a purely decorative acquisition. She had spent too many years caring only for herself; she wasn’t sure she should be trusted with the responsibility of keeping something else alive.

The fish in the first two bowls were both small, copper-colored, and lethargic.

Leah wondered if they were sick, or maybe only half-grown. That was something else she should ask one of the brothers. How long did reifarjin live? Were they so delicate that one would barely survive the trip back to her lodgings, or so hardy that she’d be stuck with it for the next decade? If she was silly enough to buy one. Which of course she wouldn’t be. There could hardly be a more coru purchase than a fish, and Leah had never had much affinity for the element of water. She was a torz woman, tied to earth and flesh. Reliable and practical and dull.

Well—except for the past five years. Past six.

She shook her head and bent down to get a closer look at the reifarjin in the final bowl. It was slightly larger than the others and gorgeously colored, with streaks of brilliant raspberry fading into cobalt blue. It sported a double row of the feathery fins, one in each color, fluttering so rapidly in the still water that they seemed to form one vibrant shade of heliotrope. Most of the other reifarjin had seemed unaware of their human audience, but this one knew she was there, Leah thought: As soon as she ducked down to examine it, it sidled closer to the glass, watching her mistrustfully from one large eye while its circlet of fins quivered in agitation or resentment. When she lifted a hand and traced her finger from the top to the bottom of the bowl, the fish lifted its gaze to track her movement.

I want you, she thought, so powerfully and so unexpectedly that it was almost as if someone else had whispered the words in her ear.

One of the brothers materialized at her side. “What do you think?” he asked.

“Why does this one look different from the others?” Leah said.

He shrugged. “Don’t really know. Maybe one in fifty is a blended color like that. They behave the same as the others. Eat the same food. They just look different.” “Do they cost more?” she wanted to know.

He eyed her, sensing a sale. “Sometimes.” Leah straightened up, took a step away. “Well—” “But not this one,” the vendor said hastily. “Regular price.” “Which is?” He eyed her again, trying to gauge her monetary status from her appearance.

She didn’t think her clothing gave much away. She was wearing a plain green tunic and matching pants, both out of season; she’d pulled her dark brown hair back into a messy knot and hadn’t bothered with cosmetics. She’d lost weight while she was in Malinqua, so she looked a little underfed for her stocky body, and the wariness she’d developed in the past five years could sometimes be read as worry. It was extremely unlikely he would peg her for what she really was: a prodigal daughter of the Five Families who had finally made her way home.

“Two quint-golds,” he said.

“Two quint-golds!” she repeated, her voice as shocked as if he’d named a price twenty times that high.

“Usually,” he added. “But we’re offering a special price for Quinnasweela. One quint-gold. That includes the bowl and everything.” She spared a moment to wonder how they could possibly sell the fish without the bowls and another moment to think she was a complete idiot. And then she firmly shut down her brain so she wouldn’t think at all. “I’ll take it,” she said. “This one.” It would have made sense to go directly from the vendor’s booth back to her lodgings, carrying the reifarjin by the handles of the sturdy woven bag that was also part of her purchase price. But as Leah tried to avoid the worst of the changeday crowds, she ended up passing the center of the Plaza and the raised dais where the blind sisters sat. By the light of their own ring of torches, she could see that one of the three seers was not, at the moment, entertaining a visitor. So she climbed right up the wooden steps and sank to her knees before the other woman and carefully set her new acquisition down on the planks beside her.

“Blessed changeday to you,” she said. “I have some questions to ask.” The blind seer tilted her head to one side, as if planning to listen closely to all the things Leah would and would not say. This woman and her sisters had operated in this very same spot for as long as Leah could remember—for decades, probably.

There was some speculation that they were not the same women who had first commandeered the dais here in the heart of the Plaza, that they were the nieces or daughters or granddaughters of the first sisters who had unrolled their mats and began trading in information. But they knew everything about everyone in the city—perhaps in all of Welce. You could buy their knowledge with a coin or pay for it with information of your own. Never, as far as Leah knew, had their information been false. And never had anyone been able to tell them apart. They were three bigboned, soft-skinned, blank-eyed women who harvested secrets and shared the rich bounty.

“Ask, then,” the woman replied.

“How much do I owe you?” Unlike the fish vendor, the seer wouldn’t haggle.

She would name a price and Leah would pay it or go somewhere else to try to discover what she wanted to know.

“I can’t answer that until I know the questions.” “I want to learn about—about—the decoy princess.” The seer didn’t seem surprised or skeptical. She didn’t ask why that would be a topic of interest to anyone. She merely nodded. “The little girl. Mally.” “That’s her name. What do I need to pay you?” “Two silvers,” said the other woman.

A low price. Clearly none of the information about Mally was particularly sensitive. Leah handed over the coins and then said, “Tell me about her. Everything.” The woman fingered the coins. “Your accent makes you a native Welchin. And yet you know nothing about the child?” “I’ve been living abroad. There is much about the current political situation that I don’t know.” The sister nodded. “Well, then,” she said. “This is her story. Odelia is the daughter of King Vernon and his fourth wife, Romelle, and she had been named as heir to the throne. Darien Serlast—you know who Darien Serlast is?” Leah was tempted to answer, I know him very well, in fact. I was in Malinqua at his request, spying on a foreign nation. But of course, she never told anyone that.

“He’s the regent.” “When Odelia was born, he was still just an advisor to the old king. But Darien Serlast is the one who thought it would be a good idea to find another child who could stand in for Odelia to keep the true princess safe in case danger ever threatened. Taro Frothen—the torz prime—is the one who discovered Mally. The resemblance between the two girls is said to be remarkable, although it is not clear if they are actually related.” They were, Leah knew, in the way that all the members of the Five Families were related after years of intermarriage, but the connection was distant. Romelle was Taro’s fifth or sixth cousin; Leah could never remember exactly. Torz, anyway, with a faint thread of Frothen blood in her veins. And Mally was Taro’s great-niece, though only a handful of people were aware of that fact.

“No one knows who Mally’s parents are?” Leah asked.

The seer shook her head. “I imagine Taro Frothen knows, but they say that even Romelle is in the dark.” “So once Taro produced this girl, how was she used over the past five years?” “Odelia had been certified as King Vernon’s heir, but he died not long after she was born. Romelle and her baby and her older daughter went to live on Taro’s estates because she said she wanted to raise her children away from the scheming at court. But of course, they had to come into Chialto on many formal occasions. On those visits, sometimes Romelle brought Odelia and sometimes she brought Mally.

No one ever knew if it was the real princess or the fake one, and this is one of the reasons, or so everyone believes, that there was never any attempt on Odelia’s life.” “And no one could ever tell them apart?” The seer smiled slightly. “Well, the primes could,” she replied, “but they had every reason to keep up the fiction.” The primes. Of course. Each prime had a deep connection with one of the five elements, and this translated into an almost mystical ability to decipher truths about the people around them. Taro Frothen was a man of earth and flesh—he could touch a stranger’s hand and instantly identify him, recite his genealogy and probably describe the state of his health as well. Nelson Ardelay, the sweela prime, could sift through anyone’s thoughts and pick the truth from the lie. Leah had heard that the coru prime could read a person’s blood; she didn’t know how the hunti and elay primes decoded people and arranged them into family groupings, but she was sure they could do it.

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